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Dragon Boat Festival – Unity and Diversity of the Chinese Heritage

Duanwu Festival 端午节 or Dragon Boat Festival falls on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar. I was taught since young that the legend behind this festival was about the story of Qu Yuan, a poet and minster of the ancient state of Chu during the warring states of Zhou dynasty. He was well loved by the people and was loyal and intelligent subject who got depressed when despite his years of effort, could do nothing to prevent the fall of his state to another and thus decided to commit suicide by drowning himself in the river.

Dragon boat festival - qu yuan

Out of respect, the local villagers wanted to prevent his body from being eaten by fishes and started rowing through the rivers in boats and beating drums to scare the fishes away. At the same time, they threw rice packed into leaves or bamboo into the river so that the fishes will eat the dumplings and leave his body alone. I know, I know… It is a little duh, but it is after all a legend….

Then I read on wikipedia  that different parts of China supposedly celebrate Dragon Boat Festival commemorating different people. In Suzhou, they commemorate Wu Zixu, who is also a loyal subject in a similar plight as Qu Yuan but 207 years apart.

Chinese Wikipedia was a lot more informative. Apparently, the festival already existed before these 2 characters. The original reason for this festival has to do with the inauspiciousness of this day on the lunar calendar and worship of a Dragon King. The original reason for the festival may not be relevant anymore, but the moral story of patriotism and respect from people will always live on. These 2 men happened to die on this day, so somehow it was decided to commemorate their great patriotic acts and pass on the legends so that we can remember these heroes.  So a new meaning was given to this festival.

What is interesting is how this festival of confusing origins is actually celebrated across Vietnam, Korea and some parts of Japan. Of course Chinese in many countries celebrate it. (Actually a lot of festivals have confusing origins across all cultures, after all, things change over time.) These places were at some point in time connected to China in history and it is interesting how traditions just kept passing through the ages regardless of politics and political territories.

Thus, I feel that all the more, we should preserve our traditions and not lose them over time. Be it eating dumplings and dragon boat races during Duanwu Jie or paying respects to ancestors on Qingming. These are festivals and elements of our culture that form our heritage and part of who we are. It will be sad to lose them over time. In our current times, we can easily commemorate these festivals and follow these customs rather effortlessly. If it is a lot of trouble wrapping dumplings now with all the technology and convenience of buying ingredients we have, remember how difficult it was for our ancestors who did not have these conveniences or even the means to sometimes get the ingredients because of war or famine. Yet, they persevered and the traditions were passed on. So what reasons do we have to let them disappear?

Now thanks to my grandmother and mother being such great cooks, I grew up eating mostly home cooked stuff and thinking everyone eats the same stuff. I knew there was Nonya Dumplings, but I thought all Bak Zhangs are otherwise the same.  It was only when I went to China to work that I realised in every part of China, the dumplings are very different. In Shanghai, I remember I was given a dumpling that only had red dates and glutinous rice. I took a bite and I just felt homesick. LOL… Sorry Shanghainese. Then even in my own ancestral village, their dumplings had slightly different fillings. The rice was white, there was peanuts and I don’t even remember what sort of meat they have in there… Then through my colleagues from all over China, I learned that they all had different dumplings. It is so interesting that again, we are unified by a custom, but we all have our own cultural dumplings. I find it so interesting! Despite me still thinking the one I grew up with is still the best, I am happy to learn about all the different dumplings. Even a search online on Singapore and Malaysian Bak Zhangs, turn up an array of recipes that has different ingredients. Most will have lor bak (braised pork) and mushrooms, but some will have lup cheong (Chinese dried sausage) while others will have dried shrimps. Some will have red bean paste wrapped in a membrane while others use peanuts and beans and some have salted egg yolks. Although most are pyramid shaped, there are some like the Cantonese who wrap it like a pillow.  Do share with me what is in your dumpling. I find it pretty fascinating!

Here are some examples of different types of rice dumplings commonly found in Singapore from other bloggers.

Cantonese Rice Dumplings:

dragon boat festival - cantonese rice dumpling

Kee Zhang / Alkaline Dumpling:

dragon boat festival - alkaline dumpling

Nonya Rice Dumpling:

dragon boat festival - nonya zhang

My Mum’s Hokkien Rice Dumpling:

Dragon boat festival

Anyway, so last year, I told my mum that I am her hands and legs in the kitchen. She just give me instructions on what to add and how to fry and so I fried the ingredients, then learned to wrap the dumplings. But there was no record of the recipe! So this year, we decided to document her yummy recipe so that we can ensure that it is passed on to the rest of us. BTW, my mum is a great cook and a total natural so I probably got a small part of her genes. =) It is a blessing for us to enjoy her lovely food and I think will be a shame if these are lost in future so we told her to pass on the skills to us.

However the challenge is to document it as with all natural cooks, they do not really measure their ingredients. I am sure a lot of you know what I am talking about. (I am not disciplined in this way too and thus, this blog also forces me to try to quantify my steps.) My mum has 4 kids and 4 kid-in-laws to pass her recipes to and we in turn hope to pass it on to future generations and instructions like “add some soysauce” does not work. So mummy is slowly working on recording her recipes and I am trying to help her when I can. This is another part of preserving heritage that I am working on. Preserving memories for my siblings and passing on the heritage of food in my family to later generations.

So here we are! I am generally in-charge of recording, and he in charge of frying while mum will throw in the seasonings and give instructions. I must say that the process of this seemingly simple dish that I can wallop 3 in a seating (record was 5) is really NOT simple! Besides preparing the leaves, and each ingredient, they also need to be cooked separately first before finally wrapping them together and cooking them together. My mother’s rice dumplings uses pork, chestnuts, dried shrimps and red bean paste as filling. We used to use dried oyster as well, but because this is quite unpopular with my siblings, my mum decided not to waste the ingredient. Today, my mum told me that few people use red bean paste and in fact, my grandmother came up with the idea to use red bean paste thus amending our tradition of what fillings are in our dumplings. My grandma loves sweets, so I guess she loves red bean paste and felt it is a good complement to the savoury ingredients in the dumpling. And I must say I agree with her. Uually dumplings are eaten with sweet sauce to complement the savoury filling but with the red bean paste, I don’t see the need of a sweet sauce anymore! On top of that, she also came up with a way to pack the red bean paste in without using a membrane and the result will still be a soft, melt in your mouth dumpling. Way to go, grandma! So here is our recipe for my mother’s rice dumplings.

Have fun and enjoy! 端午节合家安康!

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